― 114 ―

Chapter VIII. The Bushranger Seeks Helen.

ANXIOUS as Trevor was to hear tidings of Helen, and pained and mortified as he was to be prevented by illness from joining the expedition for her recovery, Mark Brandon was not less eager to find the girl on whom he had fixed his wild and lawless lust.

Maddened by her loss, he cursed the ill-luck which had separated her from him at the moment when he had assured, as he thought, the destruction of her friends who were advancing to her rescue, and had secured her for himself. He determined to follow her up at all hazards, for his absorbing passion so blinded him to all consequences, that he lost

  ― 115 ―
sight of his usual habits of caution, and was ready to risk life and liberty to regain possession of her.

But, if she had been carried off by the natives, as he expected, he should have need, he was aware, of the assistance of his brawny comrade in the enterprise; he was obliged, therefore, to bear the companionship of the treacherous rascal till his object was accomplished. In this mood he had journeyed on with him towards the scene of their encounter with the natives.

This time, however, he had forbore from going near the spot where Trevor was lying, and where the corporal, whom he and Grough had seen at a distance, was watching. He might easily have shot them both; but as that would have been a murder without an object, which was contrary to his “system,” he passed on his way, intending to move round the point and look for the tracks of the natives in their retreat.

He thought, at the time, that he observed his

  ― 116 ―
companion eye the soldier in a way that indicated a desire to communicate with him; but whether it was that Grough thought the attempt too hazardous, and that he was likely to be shot by the corporal on the one side if he approached him, and by Brandon on the other, if he left him, he had gone on without speaking. Mark, however, guessed his thoughts, and as he said to himself, “made a note of it.”

The tracks which the Bushranger searched for were soon found, for the natives had been in too large a body not to leave a trail behind them, easy to be recognised by one so experienced in the bush.

The track led to the north-west which was precisely the part into which the bushranger desired to penetrate. He looked out for some sign of Helen having been with them, hoping that she would have recourse to the same device to give information of her track as she had done before. In this he was disappointed, but after a few miles travelling he spied the mark of a little shoe. His heart leaped within him. It

  ― 117 ―
could be no other than the girl's foot, for the natives never wore shoes. He proceeded on his way with increased energy.

Grough had not observed the circumstance of the little foot, and Brandon did not think it necessary to tell him; besides, the former was too much occupied with his plans for seizing his friend and delivering him up for the reward to do more than mark the route which they were pursuing, in order that he might find his way back. To assure himself of this facility he began to notch a tree as a sign-post; but Brandon checked him.

Grough seemed at first inclined to rebel; but he suddenly assumed a demeanour of entire acquiescence in Brandon's better judgment. The Bushranger was not deceived by the transparent duplicity of his fellow; but he made a “notch” in his memory of that circumstance too.

The pair went on side by side in seeming good fellowship; and they kept on the track till they came to the point where the body of

  ― 118 ―
natives separated, one tribe with Helen having gone one way, and the auxiliary tribe another. This was embarrassing. The Bushranger stopped to deliberate.

Some suspicion seemed now to cross the mind of the obtuse Grough. What was Brandon's object in following the tracks of the natives? Had he become acquainted with any tribe in his former sojourn in the bush? What did he want with them? Grough was puzzled.

Brandon continued his search after some trace of Helen, but he could find none. After some thought, he followed the track to the right, leading to the north. Grough longed to ask the reason of his taking one track in preference to another, or of his following the track of the natives at all; but conscious of his own meditated treachery he feared to put any question which might lead Brandon to doubt his confidence; Brandon, from the very absence of the question, drew the conclusion that his companion was hatching some trick against him; for if his intentions had been good he

  ― 119 ―
would have spoken without hesitation. He congratulated himself that the brute thought he was outwitting him.

They continued their way, each mistrusting the other. By day the one watched the other; at night neither would sleep lest the other should surprise him. At last, on reaching the top of a low hill, they suddenly discovered some natives on the plain beneath. At the same time they were themselves discovered, and the natives feeling confidence in the depth of their fastnesses, greeted them with a loud yell of defiance.

Spears were thrown, but Brandon did not heed them; he was intent on discovering some sign of Helen. The plain was open, and if she had been there, he could not have failed to perceive her; but he could see nothing of her. It was clear that he was on the wrong scent; he stamped his foot with rage.

Grough observed the action with surprise; but he made no remark, for there was a something in Brandon's look that was dangerous; and the

  ― 120 ―
spirit of the less intellectual ruffian quailed before the mental ascendancy of his superior. But, as the natives advanced, it was necessary to check them.

Brandon had a double-barrel fowling-piece; Grough a musket.

“Fire!” cried out Brandon.

Grough hesitated; he did not like to leave himself without the protection of a charge; for he feared Brandon as much as he did the natives. But as the savages advanced closer, and their spears came thick, Brandon was obliged to fire in self-defence, and, urged by the imminence of the danger, Grough fired also. The natives retreated immediately. Brandon's second barrel was undischarged, and Grough's barrel was empty.

“I'm done!” thought Grough.

But, to his extreme surprise, Brandon desired him to load again immediately.

“He doesn't suspect me after all,” thought Grough.

It was what Brandon intended him to think.

  ― 121 ―

“We must retrace our steps,” said Brandon.

Grough joyfully assented.

Brandon seemed irritable and moody, and was lost in thought.

They went on till they returned to the spot where the two tracks separated.

“This is our way,” said Brandon, pointing to the track.

Grough demurred:—

“What's your game, Mark?” he said; “what's the use of following the natives? We shall only get riddled with their spears some time, or have our skulls smashed in with their waddies! No use in running into danger. The natives won't help us to leave the island. Better go back towards camp and try to seize a boat or something.”

“And be seized ourselves,” replied Brandon. He reflected for a moment. Suddenly he said to Grough:—

“The natives have got the girl with them.”

“The devil they have! How do you know that?”

  ― 122 ―

“I know it; that's enough. We must get her again.”

“What's the use of the girl when you have got her? One girl is as good as another. Let us catch a native.”

“You forget,” said Brandon; “we want this girl as a hostage.”

“As a what?”

“As a hostage—fool! As a pledge—to make terms with her father.”

“Oh! that's another thing. But if the natives have got her, perhaps they want her for a pledge—or a hostage, as you call it—too, and they won't give her up.”

“We must fight for it. If you don't like to stand by me, say so.”

“Oh! I'll stand by you, Mark, my boy; never fear that. But I don't like the job, that's all I can say.”

“Say nothing, then; and come on.”

This course did not at all accord with Grough's private plans; but being an animal of one idea, he kept his mind steadily fixed on

  ― 123 ―
it, and that was to betray Mark and get the reward. He kept on with him, therefore, trusting that the opportunity of mastering him would come at last.

They continued their way till dark; but as neither dared to sleep, from fear of the other, Brandon thought it would be a waste of time to stop. He had marked the “lie” of the country, and the direction of the track which pointed to an opening between some low hills. He thought he could not miss it, and he determined to travel all night, hoping to come up with the natives. But in this he made a mistake which he would not have committed in a calmer state of mind; for he knew very well that to attempt to track footsteps in the bush at night is always useless labour. But the irritation of his mind urged him on.

When the daylight came he found that he was wrong. He was not on the track; and he could form no idea whether he had strayed to the right of it or to the left. His judgment, perhaps from want of rest, had become impaired,

  ― 124 ―
and his mental faculties enfeebled. He wandered about for many days, scarcely taking food, and with little sleep. He always removed to a distance from Grough and hid himself at night. He had become peevish and irritable; and Grough grumbled openly. Still the two kept together, for Brandon wanted Grough to make use of him, and Grough stuck close to Brandon to betray him. At last, however, they found the track again, and Brandon's spirits revived.

They followed it up until they came to the bank of the river over which Helen and Mr. Silliman had passed in the raft.

But the river, always rapid, was now swollen into a boiling torrent, and it seemed impossible to cross it at that place. The traces, however, of the natives who had been there many days before, were distinctly visible; and the trees at a little distance bore the marks of having been cut by a steel axe. But the river was for the present impassable. Brandon threw himself down on the grass furious from disappointment.

  ― 125 ―

But Grough was glad at the hinderance; and sat down at a little distance. Both remained in silence; and both were worn out with the fatigue of constant travelling, and from the want of refreshing sleep.

Brandon revolved in his mind all sorts of schemes for passing the river. He would have risked the danger of swimming across; but he could not dare to be without his fowling-piece. He thought of a bark-canoe after the fashion of the natives; but a glance at the roaring torrent convinced him that the attempt that way would be hopeless.

While he was thus engaged in cursing his ill-luck, Grough was employed in thinking of his own schemes. He was heartily sick of his present life in the bush; there was no fun in it at all! Rather than keep out any longer in such a miserable way he would almost prefer, he thought, to deliver himself up and take his chance. But as he thought, fatigue overcame him, and he fell asleep.

Brandon observed that his companion had

  ― 126 ―
been unable to keep his eyes open; it seemed that he was fast and not likely to wake for some time; he was himself weary to exhaustion, and his eyelids were weighed down with an irresistible desire to slumber. He thought there could be no danger in getting a few winks—only for a few minutes. In fact, sleep he must—and he slept.

It was the first time in his life, as he afterwards remarked, that he had “given away a chance;” and dearly did he pay for it. But his thoughts were so intensely fixed on the prize in his thoughts, and on the difficulties in his path, that he forgot the danger that was near him.

The immediate cause, however, of the fate which presently befell the Bushranger, was so remarkable, that to some, and not superstitious minds, it might have seemed the result of something more than chance; and that the reptile which appeared to play its part so opportunely was not an accidental agent in the tragedy of that eventful day.